Students and eBooks (and Hype)

E-books displacing paper books at the U. Arizona library writes eBook booster David Rothman today in TeleRead. I see the real story not as a positive sign of eBook adoption, but as highlighting of more fundamental questions about students’ changing study habits and the future of reading.
David quotes “Actual non-electronic books have been, for the most part, relegated to the upper floors of the library, but they’ve become the library equivalent of ghost towns where only those running away from something dare to tread.”. But that quote is taken from a Arizona Daily Wildcat story that doesn’t even mention eBooks, noting that student library users no longer visiting the physical stacks instead “surf the Internet to possibly do research or write papers, but probably just send instant messages to their friends or play online poker”.
To me, students IM’ing, web surfing, and internet gaming instead of reading physical books is at the very least a double-edged sword with respect to adoption of digital reading, and may well be a net negative to the extent it portends “snippet consumption” at the expense of “immersive reading”. Indeed there’s been some concern that immersive reading – regardless of whether paper is involved – is rapidly on the decline among the young (J.K. Rowling’s tomes perhaps being exceptions proving the rule). There is a dearth of data on students’ changing study habits, suggests Cambridge professor John B. Thompson, author of the compelling recent work Books in the Digital Age, focused on the changing fields of higher-education and academic publishing. If anyone does know of real research in this area, beyond the anecdotal complaints of educators that the student attitude is becoming “if Google can’t find it, it must not exist”, I’d love to hear about it. Personally, I believe “snippet consumption” and immersive reading can and will coexist, and that this split is really nothing new (the “snippet” form of text and surfing thereof having been around as long as newspapers, well even graffiti), but I’d love to see hard data on reading trends.
Given the recent huge expectations for eBooks, and subsequent bubble-burst, I’m very concerned that we not over-hype what’s really happening. As I’ve previously argued, I feel the industry has a lot of work to do to create a compelling end to end experience that will stimulate user adoption of digital reading. Unfulfillable expectations for eBooks in 2000 resulted in the perception that ePublishing was a dead-end non-business. I don’t believe that for a minute, but nor do I want to go see us experience yet another hype cycle. With all due respect to David, whose vision I definitely respect, I’d rather see us roll up our collective sleeves and solve the problems that stand in the way of eReading “crossing the chasm”.

2 Responses to Students and eBooks (and Hype)

  1. Actually, Bill, if you read the FAQ and the Washington Post op-ed on the TeleRead site, you’ll see that I’m solidly on your side about books and sustained thought. Similarly, I share your concern over the e-book industry’s hype. Check out my response to your post today. Hey, even when we disagree, I continue to enjoy your blog. But, ironically, without knowing it, you were actually strengthening the e-book-related causes dearest to me. David

  2. I’ve gone to university three times, ten years apart each time, and here’s what I noticed: